Taiwan's Betel Night Beauties: Shame or Selling Point?
Betel nut girls, also called Betel nut beauties or binlangshishih in Mandarin, have long been a feature of Taiwan’s unique cultural landscape since the 1960s. These scantily clad young girls peddle betel nuts in neon-decorated glass stalls along roads in the country side, especially at highway intersections.
Having women wearing skimpy outfits is a promotion strategy for the betel nut vendors and it really works on the majority of male customers.
However in recent years, facing ban from local police for transportation security, indecent exposure or for alleged prostitution, betel nut beauties still remain and some people have even suggested that they should be elevated to a level as a kind of Taiwanese tourist attraction, just like ladyboys in Thailand or the Hula girls in Hawaii.
However, any issue involving the betel nut beauty is always controversial.
Betel nut girls, a popular Taiwanese tourism attraction?
Lin Chieh, the secretary general of the Association of Taiwan Tour Souvenirs, has assented to promote betel nut girls as a unique part of Taiwan’s tourism industry.
“Betel nut beauties have become part of Taiwanese life and you can’t see similar things in other countries,” he said.” So, if the government can set up an integrated plan to supervise betel nut stalls, it would be really interesting to reverse the betel nut girl’s previously bad image.”
In January 2010, the official brochure of the Taiwan High Speed Rail——T-Life listed betel nut girls as one of the must-visit tourist spot in Hsinchu, a county in Northern Taiwan which is famous for its skimpily clad betel nut girls.
The director of the Hearst Magazine who collected the volume about betel nut girls in Hsinchu said they didn’t think much about whether the culture is good or bad, though the content did cause some dispute after publishing, but they still think betel nut girls culture is interesting local color, especially for foreign tourists.
Foreign tourist, especially coming from China, are curious about these girls.
This is a strong point for those who are in favor of promoting betel nut girl for tourism purposes, particularly after permitting tourists from Mainland China to come to Taiwan since 2008.
Many say that Chinese tourists would come to the island to see betel nut girls, thus some betel nut girls even perform pole dances along the roadside to attract travel buses to stop and purchase cigarettes and beverages. China Travel Agent, a travel agent in Taiwan offer Chinese tourist tour guide service, admit that they have heard of this kind of demand from Chinese customers among the industry.
However, the curiosity toward betel nut girls from foreigners is not accepted as a good reason for official authorities to accelerate betel nut girl culture by all.
Authorities still hold conservative attitude
The director general of the Bureau of Tourism for Hsinchu City Government, Lin said betel nut girls belongs to sub-culture rather than tourism, adding that tourism needs history or profound cultural meaning. “Betel nut girls have status as workers and it is impossible to make it an international tourism spot,” he explained, “unless we give them a tourist characteristic or add some creativity or energy.”
An anoymous official at the Tourism Bureau said bluntly, “Betel nut beauties are not appropriate to be a tourist feature of Taiwan because betel nuts are always connected with negative images, such as oral cancer,” he asked in reply, “ promoting this flaw of our country is like exposing our own defects, isn’t it?”
To promote, be proud of them first.
But how do betel nut girls think of themselves in this debate? For them, making money seems to be their primary concern.
A betel nut girl in Keelung said she doesn’t want to become a tourist attraction because “it only brings more perverts here.” However, Hsinchu’s betel nut girls had a different opinion. “Sometimes they(tourists) park travel buses in front of our stall to take pictures and buy some drinks by the way, I don’t mind it,” she said. “If only they don’t keep us from selling betel nuts, I don’t care if I am a tourist spot or not.”
Betel nut beauties are definitely a unique feature of Taiwan, but whether it is proper to make it a selling point of Taiwanese tourism is still a question under consideration. Though in recent years, some artists or film directors paid effort to brush off the stigma imposing on betel nut girl’s by holding art exhibitions or making movies, most Taiwanese still deem betel nut girls low class.
Perhaps the most important thing is not whether the government should be able to supervise betel nut vendors and girls, if Taiwanese really want to promote betel nut girls as Taiwan’s unique spot, instead, Taiwanese should be proud of what we think foreign visitors would be impressed about. If we are ashamed of introducing betel nut girls to foreign tourists, how can foreign visitors really truly appreciate what they see?